Words matter if we are to survive: Stop the slogans

Years ago — 37 to be exact — I first heard the terms “lungs of the earth” and “rainforest” applied to the Amazon. Both are dreadfully wrong. Well meaning, but wrong. Anyone who has stood in a tropical forest will tell you there is a distinct lack of oxygen available. Even at sea level, you can be out of breath just walking. Why? Because there is so much humidity pushing decomposition of the debris on the forest floor that oxygen is being consumed as part of that process. Now, do forest trees produce oxygen? You bet. But when you add in the heat and humidity of the Amazon forest, the net effect is that the so-called rainforests produce — at best according to NOAA scientists in a report in 1992 — as much oxygen as carbon dioxide that they consume. In other words, tropical forests are a wash.

Calling the Amazon the “lungs of the Earth” to safeguard it, is both disingenuous and patronizing. Why? Because the man who came up with that phrase was right, the Amazon must, repeat, must be preserved. There are more different species there in every square mile than the count of original species in North America; more different types of insects, fish, plants, animals, fungi. Assuming the populace was too uneducated to listen to that argument and understand the reason for such biodiversity (which we do not fully understand anyway), he came up with a slogan which sounds great but is easily debunked — throwing out the vital baby’s future with slogan bathwater.

The other ridiculous thing about the Amazon is that we still teach kids it is a tropical rainforest.  Tropical? Yes. Rainforest? Nope. Dr. Norman Borlaug proved this in the early ’80s. If you cut down the trees and destroy the greenhouse roof, rainfall drops off precipitously. In fact, except for geographical anomalies (like clouds bumping into mountains, or sea mist rolling over the landscape and condensing) everything between the Tropics of Capricorn and Cancer gets just 5 inches of rain a year, everything else is mostly re-condensation. Break the greenhouse (like the Egyptians, Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans did with the Sahara forests) and you get 5 inches a year. Yes, the Sahara and the Amazon and the Congo and a host of other forests get the same paltry original rainfall a year. Put a cup 500 feet above the ground in the Amazon and there are just 5 inches of real rain. Slogan number two, “rainforest,” debunked. In fact, if you want a real rainforest, go to the temperate rainforests of Alaska, Oregon, Idaho, and Northern California for just some examples. Try breathing there — wonderful, oxygen-rich, fresh air.

And so we come to today’s slogan supposed to lead us to safeguarding the environment: “Carbon Neutral.” Sounds good, but total nonsense. It is impossible to have carbon neutral in any manufacturing process, in any mode of transportation, in any part of daily life. Like a perpetual motion machine, it seems a benign possibility but cannot exist. In place of “carbon neutral” we must be looking at “carbon balanced.” If you fly on holiday and consume car fuel (to the airport), jet fuel portion of the plane’s journey, car fuel to your hotel, you would need to balance out that carbon output of carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide with, say, a planting of a tree or two. Or make sure two acres of sea water and algae (oxygen producing) remain unpolluted.

There’s a balance possible if you are aiming at restoring equilibrium. Look, burning 1 gallon of gas in your car makes 20 pounds of carbon dioxide. Compare that to your breathing: you make about 2 to 3 pounds of carbon dioxide a day. Drive 20 miles, burn one gallon of gas and you’ve added about 10 times as much carbon dioxide to the planet compared to just breathing. So, what about a tree or two?  A tree can absorb about 48 pounds of carbon dioxide – per year! Just for your breathing, you need 17-18 trees to become carbon balanced. If you exercise, jog, ski, swim, add another 20 or so trees. If you drive 10,000 miles a year burning 500 gallons or so, you would need another 208 trees or 100 acres of pristine algae-rich sea water.  And that’s just you.

Worldwide, there are about 3,000,000,000,000 trees. That’s 428 trees per person just for breathing, which equals balancing out 8,560 pounds of carbon dioxide — about what you use but not what your drive, fly, nor all the other manufacturing processes and transportation going on around the world. Yes, sea algae keeps this all in struggling balance (or has done up ‘til this modern age), but the oceans are being polluted, we’re still spewing carbon dioxide into the air at an alarming rate from power plants and oil refining globally. We need to balance it all out.

Putting a price on carbon is not the answer, because that’s punishment to achieve “neutrality.” Neutrality is too easily broken. What we need to do is balance it out, find a use for carbon that economically makes it so attractive to sequester the carbon dioxide and put it to good use that it would be a crime not to reuse, restore and benefit from such waste. Like a compost pile in your garden that is, after all, garbage, you fertilize with it and put back — balance — the soil ingredients. If we did the same balancing act with carbon emissions, we could put back into the soil and oceans, goodness of the earth that has already sustained us. Use, recycle, repeat. That’s balance, not neutrality.

We had better get used to balancing out the environment before we do to the air what we have done to tropical forests — forests like the Sahara, Peruvian, Atacama, Kalahari, Namib, Northern Australia, Great Indian and Arabian Deserts that can never come back in our lifetimes.

Peter Riva, a former resident of Amenia Union, now lives in New Mexico.